Autumn Jewels: Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds

With birds leaving their breeding grounds as far north as Canada, a lot of hummingbirds make their way through Michigan in August and September.

A quick hum, a little chirp and dash of color flying past your head lets you know that the hummingbirds are here. Our region is home to ruby-throated hummingbirds throughout the summer, but fall migration is an excellent opportunity to spend time observing these amazing acrobats.

With birds leaving their breeding grounds as far north as Canada, a lot of hummingbirds make their way through Michigan in August and September, and they’re on the lookout of good food and safe spaces to stop along their journey.

Without the responsibility of raising the babies, males are the first to begin their southward journey. You may notice a little more buzzing and flitting about your feeders than usual in late August. With a red patch on their throats, males will dash in and out and guard feeders as they seek to “bulk up” for their migration. Taking a few days to a few weeks to increase their body mass by 25-40%, they are preparing to fly to Mexico where they will spend the winter.

Having raised young, the females often take a little more time to feed and prepare for migration, leaving up to two weeks after the males. They too, will increase their body mass to prepare for the long journey ahead. Adult hummingbirds often utilize the same route year after year, sometimes stopping in the same yards and at the same feeders during their trip. Should a regular stop no longer be available, they will look for something nearby to meet their need for food and rest.

Young hummingbirds migrate independently of their parents — and for them, this first journey is full of challenges. Being only months old, they have limited experience and are traveling an unfamiliar route. It takes them more time to gain the fat necessary for migration and more time to find needed food sources. Young birds are among the last to migrate and are the least fit for the journey.

As ruby-throated hummingbirds pass through our region on their way south this fall, we can enjoy their antics and support their travels by offering high-quality stopover sites in our yards, patios, porches and balconies. Your reward will be a delightful display of jeweled colors, humming wings and aerial acrobatics.

Tips for Welcoming Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds enjoy nectar from tubular-shaped flowers such as bee balm, jewelweed and cardinal flowers. Adding these native species to your landscaping creates a welcoming environment for hummingbirds and other pollinators. Planting late-blooming flowers gives migrating hummingbirds a boost along their journey.

Feeders should be kept clean and regularly filled with fresh nectar. A cup of water with a quarter cup of granulated sugar is the perfect combination to keep them coming back. You can leave your feeders up until the first hard frost. The latest migrants are usually young birds, and they can use the extra energy. Your feeder won’t cause them to delay their journey, but it might give them the energy they need to complete it.

In addition to nectar, hummingbirds depend on small insects such as gnats, fruit flies, tiny bees and small spiders to fuel their journey. Avoid using pesticides to ensure a safe and healthy food source for the hummingbirds.

Migrating birds aren’t aware of dangers in your yard, so be sure to keep your cat indoors (or prevent your neighbor’s cat from hunting at your feeders), provide shallow and clean water for drinking and mark windows with clings or bird-friendly paint to reduce collisions.

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